The murky grey clouds hung low and imposing in the darkening sky outside, threatening to summon a symphony of loud rumbles and brilliant crashes in a perfect storm the day it all went wrong.
A motionless body lay stiff and in pain within the walls of the infirmary, behind high cream sheets surrounding an uncomfortable hospital bed. Twenty-one candles lined the stone wall; thin, tall and sombre. They cast a deathly glow over a sick patient, watching over him through the blackening night when no one else would. The candlelight kept him company, kept him safe from the harsh and unforgiving world outside.
A dark and cruel world he knew all too well...
Hermione had been studying diligently in the library behind a precariously balanced mountain of leather-bound books. She was looking for relevant information set down to her by her potions teacher, Professor Slughorn, from class held earlier that day that he'd delegated as homework. Two knitting needles steadily tapped together beside her on their own accord, knitting a primitive pair of socks small enough for a house elf to wear.
She'd been sitting at the same table for nearly four hours straight without anything to eat or drink while the light of day quickly turned into the light of nearby candles standing watch over her while she studied. They had nearly burnt themselves into nothing, but Hermione Granger was determined to find all the information she could on the potion Felix Felicis without her friend Harry Potter's, or the wretched Half-Blood Prince's, help.
Her hair was a ruffled mess from constantly running her fingers through it and dark rings had begun to form under her tired brown eyes. However, Hermione's determination still coerced her to turn the pages and quietly take notes of all things relevant upon the neatly written parchment by her side. So deep was her concentration that a loud banging of the library doors being thrown open didn't distract her from her reading, or the shrill cry of horror from the hawk-like librarian, or even the shouts of annoyance from a familiar, loud and stubborn voice rapidly approaching her position. It was only when the owner of the latter voice barged up to her table and threw himself down upon the bench beside her that Hermione realized she had company, and the new arrival was not in a very good mood.
"Hermione, we need to go. Now."
It was not a question, or even a statement. It was a demand, and Hermione hated being bossed around, especially while she was so deeply engaged in her study.
"Ronald, I'm sure whatever it is it can wait. I'm nearly done here and I don't want to lose where I'm up to-"
The boy called Ron brought his fist down upon the hard oaken table, making her small pots of black ink jump and Hermione's eyes widen in alarm as they finally settled upon his worried freckled face. "No, Hermione, you don't understand. We need to go - right now! Harry's..." Ron suddenly became very aware of the curious onlookers listening into their conversation from nearby tables, or in some cases behind tall bookshelves, and the furious Madam Pince as she advanced upon their table. His voice dropped rapidly upon this realisation and became even more rushed and distraught than before.
"Harry's gone and hexed Malfoy – it's bad."
Hermione's eyes widened dramatically. Half of her was alarmed that Harry's state of mind during the past year, or even since his godfather had tragically died before his time, had finally gotten the better of him. The other half of her was concerned for Malfoy's wellbeing after being on the receiving end of a no doubt violent attack from a person whose mental state was not at its highest level at the present point in time, though she would never admit it to Ron. That would only guarantee a pointless fight over nothing, and be counterproductive in trying to deal with the problem at hand.
"What happened?" Hermione whispered urgently. The knitting needles that had previously been clacking away merrily beside her fell to a heap of useless sticks and wool upon the floor while Hermione rapidly began to pack up her belongings and return them to her black book bag.
Ron reached out to help her, but Hermione battered his hands away, not wanting him to get chocolate topping from dessert all over her homework. Ron he merely frowned at her irritated disregard of his help and continued to tell her everything as fast as he could instead. "Harry's gone round the bend, that's what's happened. He said he found a spell in that potions book he's obsessed with and tried it out on Malfoy in the girls' bathroom. Merlin knows why Malfoy was in the girls bathrooms, though I do have some theories. Anyway, the point is that it was Dark Magic, Mione. Malfoy nearly bled to death."
"Sweet Merlin!" Hermione gasped, eyes growing wider than before in shock as she dropped her inkpots to the ground with a loud, resounding snap. The noise made the pair jump and whip out their wands, expecting to be attacked at any moment but they were not attacked by Death Eaters, or Slytherins, or even a hungry Crookshanks. Instead, they were swooped upon by a very irate and glaring Madam Pince.
"Just what is the meaning of this?!" Madam Pince demanded, eyes narrowing and lips pulled into a thin line that Professor McGonagall would've been proud of. She didn't give either student the chance to explain but rather continued with her ranting. "Not only have you disrupted the tranquillity of this room, Mr Weasley, but you, Miss Granger, have befouled the floor with ink and my ears with profanity! Explain yourselves this instant!"
Ron looked at Hermione, waiting for her to get them out of trouble but for once in a very long time indeed, Hermione found herself completely speechless. Her mind was still so caught up in his news that she barely even acknowledged Ron trying – quite unsuccessfully – to plead his case to the angry librarian in hopes of avoiding a detention. Suddenly, with a loud roll of thunder sounding outside, reality seemed to click back into gear within her mind and Hermione quickly resumed packing up her belongings, not interested in the events going on around her. All she knew was that she had to get to Harry before things got any worse.
"Ron, come on, we need to find Harry!" Hermione whispered urgently, standing up from her seat. She slung her book bag hap-hazardously about her shoulders (causing Ron to yelp in surprise when it almost collided with his unguarded head) and turned to face Madam Pince. "I'm sorry Madam Pince, but Professor Dumbledore needs us urgently – that's what Ron came in here in such a hurry for, because we're needed by the Headmaster."
Ron was about to object to this, judging by the rise of his eyebrows and confused expression, but Hermione discreetly drove her foot down upon his toes and twisted a little, halting any objections he might have given to ruin her lie. Clearly not wanting to upset the Headmaster, Madam Pince merely frowned, waved her wand at the ink stained floor and walked off, allowing them to leave but would no doubt reprimand them the next time they returned to her domain.
With only a small frustrated complaint from Ron about his toes being damaged, the two of them set off at a run without another word, Ron leading the way to their destination as the rain began to fall down outside.
"Harry, what on Earth were you thinking?!" Hermione demanded as she and Ron entered the sixth year boys' dormitory in Gryffindor Tower. The room was entirely vacant, except for the one person they knew would be in there, hiding away from other students accusatory stares.
Hermione threw her bag down upon the floor and advanced quickly across the room, talking as she went. "You just don't go around casting spells you've never heard of and see what happens! That potions book has caused nothing but problems ever since you got it, Harry! Get rid of it!"
"I already have," the boy called Harry said miserably from where he sat on the edge of his bed, wand twirling idly in his shaking hands. Hermione heard Ron close the door behind them so their row couldn't be heard down in the common room below and cast a silencing charm on the room for good measure. Hermione tried hard not to throw a glare his way as the spell he had used was one that came from the book in question, but rather than direct her anger at Ron who was trying to help, she focused her attention back upon the dazed looking Harry Potter.
Hermione bit her bottom lip, worrying it between her teeth as she considered the young man sitting before her. It was obvious the events that took place not long beforehand had severely knocked him for six, and that his normally vivid green eyes appeared to be glazed and unfocused, clearly depicting he was reliving the incident in his head. His hands were gripped tightly over his wand, shaking roughly and threatening to snap it in two. Seeing the state her best friend was in, Hermione decided he'd been punished enough by the incident itself and took pity on him instead, choosing to sit down on the bed beside him.
With a sigh Hermione wrapped her arms about his shoulders, resting her turned face upon his shoulder and gazed down at his trembling hands whilst Ron walked over and took his place on his own bed beside Harry's, looking worriedly at his best mate.
"Snape got to them when it happened," Ron said, deciding to shed more light on the situation for Hermione's benefit whilst Harry was lost deep within his own mind. "It happened in Myrtle's bathroom, apparently. Myrtle was hysterical; she wouldn't shut up, screaming bloody murder and all. Snape arrived not long after and stopped the bleeding. Malfoy's now in the Hospital Wing; Harry got put through the mill with Snape afterwards." Ron sighed, looking from Hermione's patient and engaged face to the distant look upon Harry's and back again with another sigh. "I found him here about ten minutes ago and got that much out of him before I went looking for you."
"I nearly killed him," Harry said quietly, still as distant as ever with sadness showing in his eyes. "I thought he was up to something in the bathroom but he was there at the sink, hunched over and crying-" Ron snorted, mirth lacing his words as he butted in wanting clarification that Malfoy was in fact crying. Hermione shot him down with a look, silencing his rather untasteful outburst immediately as Harry's unbroken and faraway monologue continued to wash over the both of them. "-and Myrtle was comforting him, but when he saw me he freaked out. He had his wand pointed at me in no time and I thought he was going to kill me, so I said the first thing I could think of that could stop him and it kind of slipped out. I saw it in the Prince's book a few weeks ago, and it said 'For Enemies' so I decided to give it a try on Malfoy. I never would have said it if I knew what it did, never."
Hermione let go of Harry momentarily, her arm around his back moving to rub her hand in circles between his shoulder blades and her left hand falling to rest upon his own in his lap to try and stop them from quivering so much. Ron shifted slightly forward in his seat and nodded sadly, realising this was not the time to find out why Malfoy was doing something as embarrassing as crying but to try and ensure that Harry was ok in the aftermath of it all.
"It's gunna be alright, Harry. Dumbledore'll know that you'd never use that spell if you knew what it did, and I'm sure that git Malfoy will recover soon enough and be back to his annoying, arrogant self and everything will be ok," Ron said as encouragingly as he could, which caused Hermione to frown.
"I don't think it will be as simple as that, Ron," Hermione said in all seriousness. "For one, Dumbledore will want to know how Harry came across that spell. When he finds out it came from the Prince's book, Harry might have to face the consequences in regards to his potions work over the year, let alone the consequences of his actions in regards to school rules after what happened to Draco. And I'm sure Draco's mother will want to make a very, very big deal out of this – which, quite honestly, I couldn't blame her for if she did given how serious the situation is. Dumbledore could very likely expel Harry after all this Ron, so it's not to be laughed about or made fun of in any way-"
"Yes, well," Ron started, a look of confusion coming across his face at all the logical things Hermione had said, wanting to find a loop in it and prove to her that everything would be all sunshine and roses. "Still, Malfoy's a slimy git. He deserved what he got."
"No one deserves that!" Hermione snapped, eyes blazing with anger at Ron, not believing her ears that he'd approve of this barbaric and deplorable behaviour by anyone, least of all from their best friend. "Ron, Harry might not have meant it but he still did it and nothing's going to change that. It's clear from the state he's in that he knows what he did was utterly inexcusable, but that still doesn't mean he'll get off lightly over this. Knowing you did something wrong doesn't make it suddenly alright."
Ron shook his head defiantly from side to side. "No, you're wrong Hermione. He'll get off, Dumbledore will listen to what he's got to say about it all and Malfoy will be strutting around the castle any day from now, unfortunately."
Hermione sat bolt upright, seeming to shake Harry out of his stupor with her quick movements as she released him and turned blazing eyes upon the boy sitting opposite her. "Unfortunately? Unfortunately?! Ron, do you even realise what it is you just said?" Hermione's temper rapidly went from pitying Harry and shocked by his actions, to furious at his stupidity and appalled by Ron's callousness.
Without giving Ron a moment to speak, Hermione glared coldly at him and continued with her angered explanation. "You would condone Harry's abominable behaviour if it meant Malfoy was dead? Never mind the fact that Harry has broken thirty-seven school rules by my count or the fact that, knowing Dumbledore, Harry probably will get out of trouble in some way over this. Harry nearly killed a person, Ron. There's no excuse for that, regardless of whether you like them or not. He performed Dark Magic – however unintentionally – and should be punished for his actions. He performed a spell written in an untrustworthy book without any idea of its consequences-"
"It's not the Prince's fault, Hermione-"
Hermione snorted and turned to look at Harry, shifting away from him in her anger. "How can it not be, Harry? You've idolised that book all year! You've completely disregarded the dangers of listening to books that have evil intentions! Do you not remember what happened to Ginny in her first year when she listened to a dark book?"
Ron started to object to his little sister being brought into the argument with a string of profanities but Harry seemed to be listening to Hermione's words calmly. Indeed, he was so undisturbed by her accusations that he was able to respond coherently in a mumbled, secretive voice that made Hermione's eyes narrow in suspicion. "The Prince's book isn't all bad, Mione..."
"Where did you put it, Harry?" Harry shifted uncomfortably in his seat, ignoring Ron's continued objections. Hermione saw right through Harry's façade at once. "You didn't throw it away, did you?"
Ron promptly fell silent at that, looking surprised at Hermione's assumption but more so at the look of confirmation etched upon Harry's features. A few minutes passed by in an awkward tension with Harry's hands twisting about in his lap, his wand now resting idly by his side whilst Ron and Hermione waited for his admission.
"Well... No, I didn't throw it away, per say. I hid it."
Hermione sighed angrily. "Where?" Harry didn't answer, rather chose to focus more on wringing his hands about in circles. "Where, Harry?" Harry shared a glance with Ron, who was looking a little bit more than confused and judging by the low grumbling sound that suddenly echoed throughout the room, hungry as well.
"ALL RIGHT!" Harry shouted, getting to his feet and turning to glare at Hermione. "I hid it in the Room of Requirement where no one could find it! I thought that once this all blows over I could get it back for the rest of the year-"
"Are you insane?!" Hermione yelled, getting to her feet as well and poking him hard in the chest. "Harry, this is serious! That book is evil and dangerous! It needs to be disposed of for good before it does any more damage, to you or anyone else!"
"What, why?" both Harry and Ron shouted angrily, one fuming, the other flabbergasted, that Hermione could suggest such a thing.
Hermione pulled her hair in anger and was sorely tempted to stamp her foot as well. "Don't you both see how dangerous that book can be? If that's how bad one unapproved spell is, I'm scared to think how bad the rest of them riddled in that book are! The outcome might not be as fortunate next time around. Someone nearly died this time. Next time the outcome could be much, much worse!"
"Yes, but Malfoy didn't die, did he?"
"Ron, shut up! You're not helping the situation here!"
"Don't tell him to shut up!"
"Harry, be quiet!"
"No! That book is not being destroyed! So what if it's got one bad spell in it? The rest have been all good and useful!"
"Yeah, Harry's right! There are loads of good ones in there!"
Hermione took a step back in horror, not believing the two boys standing before her were the ones she called her best friends as she was still caught up on two words Harry had said.
"So what? SO WHAT?! Are either of you even listening to what you're saying?" Hermione shrieked as she backed further away, not wanting to be anywhere near them. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't go to Professor Snape, or even Dumbledore, and tell them about this and the lack of compassion either of you feel, or the complete disregard for the gravity of this situation!"
"You wouldn't!" Ron said, alarm triggering in his mind. Harry merely stood there, chest heaving and eyes blazing as he looked down at her with a scowl.
"No? Watch me." And with that, Hermione turned on her heel, scooped up her bag at a run and bolted from the room, wanting to put as much distance between the occupants of the Gryffindor boys' sixth year dormitory and herself as possible.
Storm clouds gathered lower over the castle with heavy loads they were set to drop drawing them closer and closer to the ground. The natural symphony of music gained a powerful winds section that threw broken branches against Hogwarts mighty stone walls, and uprooted small shrubs that got in the way of its orchestrated chaos. Loud, obnoxious cracks accompanying brilliant flashes of light stole the show, with heavy rhythmic clouds rolling over the countryside keeping a steady beat for the rest of nature’s show to rely on.
Twenty-one candles burnt lower in their stands, waiting for the end to arrive. The deathly white patient under their protective light stirred slightly in his dreamless sleep, unaffected by the magnificent opus echoing all around him, or the fight taking place upstairs.
Hermione ran tirelessly from one side of the castle to the other, driven on by her anger at the two disbelieving boys she left behind and her determination that justice should be done. Her hair blew like a wavy chestnut curtain behind her as she ran along the seventh floor corridor towards the northern side of the castle, her robe flying about wildly in her wake. Hermione knew that she was running quite inappropriately throughout the castle at such a late time, but the storm raging powerfully outside masked the ruckus she was making with ease.
It took all of five minutes for Hermione to reach her destination, severely out of breath, hunched over and gasping as she stood before a proud, immobile stone gargoyle guarding her passage. She stretched up to try and release the tightness in her chest and coughed loudly, waiting for her breath to come easier as the rain fell heavier beyond the thick stone walls. The gargoyle, Hermione noticed, had come to life upon hearing her coughing and its stone eyes moulded in a way that gave it a curious air, waiting patiently for her to recover.
Once Hermione was well again, she stood up straight and proud and faced the gargoyle, trying hard to remember what the current password to the Headmasters office was.
"Ah, Fizzing Whizbees?" Hermione asked uncertainly. Nothing happened. "Fudge Flies? Chocoballs? Cockroach Clusters?" Hermione spent two unsuccessful minutes trying to crack the password, having missed out on getting the update whilst dealing with Harry upstairs, and finally found the answer she was looking for. "Peppermint Toads?"
The gargoyle sprang to life and jumped aside, opening up to a magically enchanted spiralling staircase. Hermione took no time at all in jumping upon it and riding to the top where a small landing was to be found, right before a highly polished oak door with an impressive brass knocker in the shape of a griffin. With a long exhale to steady her nerves, she reached out and picked up the heavy knocker, letting it fall into place with a resounding thud that sounded as loud as the thunder outside to her ears.
"Enter, Miss Granger."
Ignoring the fact that the Headmaster picked up on her being there without being able to see her, Hermione opened the heavy oak door and slipped inside the warm and inviting room. Hermione's eyes instantly fell upon the large and imposing desk and thrown-like chair beyond it, but was startled not to see Professor Dumbledore sitting proudly behind it, eyes twinkling and face warm and caring. Instead, she looked a little further and found the old man sitting next to the fire, dressed in a long dark purple nightgown and matching nightcap, embroidered with small golden moons and shooting stars with a pair of clashing orange socks upon his feet.
"Professor Dumbledore, Sir," Hermione said politely, waiting to be invited properly into his office. Dumbledore waved her over with a smile, indicating to the chair positioned opposite his own before the warm, comforting fire. "Thank you, Sir. I hope I didn't wake you."
"Nonsense my dear, I was wide awake and thinking about flobberworms actually."
"Flobberworms, Sir?" Hermione said with incredulity lacing her features, wondering how he could think of something as mundane as flobberworms at a time where he should be either fast asleep or at least analysing the events of the day.
He nodded heartily as Hermione sank into the comfortable armchair across from his, eyes focused intently upon the wise wizard opposite. "Most certainly. They're a highly underestimated creature, flobberworms, and not nearly enough people give them the time of day." He smiled again while Hermione tried not to outwardly show just how little she thought of flobberworms – and for good reason! – when Professor Dumbledore lent back into his armchair, brought his fingers to a pointed triangle before him and fixed Hermione with a stare over the top of his half-moon spectacles.
"But alas, I am keeping you from your sleep. So, Miss Granger, what is it that's brought you up to my office at such a late hour? I trust it was not to talk about flobberworms."
Hermione raised an eyebrow which made the old man’s grin lift at the left slightly, before she got right down to business. "No Professor, it wasn't. It's actually about what happened today, in Moaning Myrtle’s lavatory."
"Ah, yes, I should have guessed." Hermione knew, without a doubt, that Dumbledore knew exactly why one of his students had sought him out at such a late hour, but didn't bother pointing this out to him. Instead, Hermione was invited by Dumbledore to inform him of her reasons for being there as if he were completely oblivious to them in the first place.
"Well Sir, I'm a little worried about Harry, in particular his mindset of late. He's become obsessed with things and his obsessions are really starting to take over him. Ron doesn't seem to think the situation is as bad as what I do, but I'm worried about how this will all end regardless-"
"What kind of things?" Dumbledore asked, overriding her admissions in the politest way he could.
"Well..." Hermione blinked, wondering where her nerve suddenly disappeared to as the truth began to block her throat, chocking her on its consequences and what admitting it to Dumbledore might do. Dumbledore remained patient however, and after a while Hermione felt enough courage once more to confess everything she knew to the Headmaster, because she had to know what was going to happen to Harry now.
And so, for the next thirty minutes, Hermione's words were the only sound to be heard in the Headmasters office, aside from the crackling of the fire as it continued to burn and the muffled sound of the storm outside as it tried to penetrate the impressive office. Not once did the old man object to anything she said, or interrupt her again, or even fidget in the slightest way. Professor Dumbledore just sat there, completely motionless save for his even breathing and the clicking over of his brain that Hermione knew would be taking place. If it weren't for the fact his eyes were open and looking at her, Hermione could have easily believed he'd have dozed off at some point, but he was still wide awake and alert and carefully listening to her story as it unfolded before him.
In all honesty, his lack of emotion or movement was beginning to irk the young witch, almost to the point where she felt like tugging on her hair again, just to know what it was he was thinking.
"Professor, I'm worried that Harry's getting too far involved in this prophecy stuff. Ever since he found out about it, it's consumed him and he's no longer the same person he was before Sirius died. He's let it control his life, and he's spending far too much time ensuring that the prophecy is fulfilled than actually living, and that scares me to death.
"After hearing what happened to Malfoy today, and how both boys reacted to what I said, I feel as if I don't know them anymore. Ron's callous words I can more easily understand than Harry's complete dismissal of the whole ordeal. Ron's just brash like he always is, but Harry's quest to protect that wretched book and to capture Malfoy doing something considered evil or along the lines of what a Death Eater would do is corrupting his mind. I'm worried that someone is going to get really hurt or even die soon because of it, and I simply won't know how to breathe again if it does happen and I could've prevented it in some way."
Hermione sighed. She felt drained after putting all her worries onto the table for the world to see, but at the same time highly invigorated and light for finally having someone to listen to her without objection. Dumbledore remained silent, pondering the words he'd heard, and Hermione rapidly got annoyed at how long it was taking for him to say anything at all. She soon found herself drumming her fingers against the armrest of her chair, and when that did not fulfil her need, she switched to tapping her left foot lightly upon the carpet rug beneath it.
"Professor?" Hermione finally asked, commanding all her nervous twitches to come to an abrupt stop and focus intently upon Dumbledore instead. A further two minutes past, moving the minute hands upon the large grandfather clock adoring the wall behind them ever closer to the midnight hour, before he decided to speak.
"Thank you for bringing your concerns to my attention, Hermione. A lot of the worries you have, I must confess that I too share with you. However," he paused for a moment, shifting forward slightly in his chair and looking at her over the top of his spectacles again. "However, I also feel that Harry has strength in him that will help him pull through all the hardships, and friends who will never abandon him, or fail him in his quest. The prophecy, I'm afraid, can never be undone. What was said those sixteen years ago still remains the same, Hermione. Neither can live while the other survives." He sighed sadly again and rested further back into his chair before continuing with, "It's a sad state of affairs that no one would wish upon anyone, but the prophecy will be fulfilled, eventually."
"But Sir, he nearly killed Malfoy today without the faintest idea that the spell he cast was Dark Magic! He just saw it in this book and tried it out – what if the effects were worse than this? What if someone died today? We're not even in battle and yet a life was nearly lost because of a careless act! Surely you have to agree that blindly taking the word of a book that someone's scribbled in a spell 'For Enemies' is not something a sane person would do on a whim!"
Hermione sighed, feeling like she was getting nowhere and before she could help herself, her mouth opened on one of those very rare occasions without consulting her brain for approval first, and let slip something she would otherwise know better than to say to Professor Dumbledore. "Are you even going to punish him for this act of stupidity at all or push it under the rug and hope it goes away? Do you even care that a student nearly died today?"
Dumbledore gave Hermione a stern look, all the kindness rapidly vanishing from his light blue eyes and replaced with a seldom seen fire burning in the depths of them. "How I see fit to reprimand any student of Hogwarts over an incident such as this will remain the duty of the Headmaster, Miss Granger. Now, I think that it is time for you to return to your dormitory and get a good night's sleep. I'm sure things will all look better in the morning with a new outlook on the day."
Hermione nodded in defeat, knowing that Dumbledore hadn't appreciated the ill-chosen words that had spilt unceremoniously from her lips in her state of frustration and that he'd chosen well to end the conversation there before anything more could be said. Still, Hermione felt bad for upsetting him after intruding upon his solitude so late at night despite her mounting frustration at the way their conversation hadn't given justice in any means, that when she reached the large oak doors that would take her back into the rest of the castle she turned back around again. Professor Dumbledore was watching her leave quietly as the fire sizzled and burn beyond him. Hermione thought of anything to say to try and make it up to the old man but could only think of one thing before she turned and left for the night, just as unsatisfied and annoyed as she was before she set foot inside of his office in the first place.
"I really like your socks, Professor."
The wind howled at a deafening level outside of the Headmasters office, like a wolf singing to the moon when the double doors of the Hospital Wing were thrown open in a rage ten minutes later. The silhouette of a small female form could be seen standing there, backlit by the fiery torches in the corridor outside. Her face was set in a mask of fury, her eyes lined with red in frustration, and her hair twisted about her face from the wind that made her look even more menacing in the darkness. However, no matter how threatening she may have looked to anyone else, Hermione was filled with nothing but aggravated thoughts directed at some and enormous sympathy directed at others.
It was that sympathy which made her defy Professor Dumbledore's parting words of returning to her dorm room, and to ignore her own better judgement, that lead her on the spiralling path downwards to her destination on the third floor. Hermione reasoned with herself that in order to make any sense out of the situation once and for all, she had to see the damage with her own eyes in order to assess the situation fairly. Only then would she know the full weight of the situation and measure the damage for herself in hopes that justice, no matter how unforgiving it would be, was carried out fairly in the end.
Glancing quickly towards the imposing door to her right and noticing the lack of candlelight beyond it Hermione breathed a sigh of relief. The matron appeared to be asleep for the night, knowing that all her wards were safe and sound and out of harm’s way. Still, Hermione didn't want to take any chances, knowing that the ruckus of the night outside could easily wake Madam Pomfrey at any moment, and she'd find herself in a sticky situation that she'd have to fight to get out of.
With light feet and stealth, Hermione closed the heavy doors behind her and began her walk across the darkened room. Beds lined each side of the walls; one near the door was occupied by a student no older than a third year, seeming to be wrapped in bandages from head to foot. Two beds side by side were occupied on the right halfway down the row, neither one hidden by high curtains like the bed at the far left of the room. None of the beds out in the open were of interest to Hermione, though she did wish all occupants a speedy recovery from all of their ailments. It was the bed at the far end of the ward, hiding behind high cream curtains, shielding the occupant from view, which caught her interest, and was the reason behind her little venture into that part of the castle in the first place.
Hermione knew without a doubt that Malfoy would be lying in the end bed, hidden away from everyone else in the school and quite possibly still fighting for his life. Every single step Hermione took closer to the dimly lit part of the infirmary filled her stomach with incomprehensible dread as the vicious storm seemed to mock her every move.
A loud crash of lightning erupted outside, causing Hermione to jump to a standstill a foot away from her destination, stopping her dead in her tracks. Her heart raced as reality dawned upon her.
She had no business being in the room, let alone checking up on a person who had treated her worse than a mongrel dog for the past six years. He simply didn't deserve her compassion, no matter how dire his situation was. Being at deaths door didn't erase the past or the hurt in her heart for every foul word directed at her; every name call; every attack on herself or her friends; every rude comment made about her parents. Hermione had absolutely no reason to feel sorry for the sixteen year old boy lying in the bed beyond the curtains, outline projected onto the linen by the candles lacing the wall opposite. She had no business insulting the Headmaster, breaking curfew, or yelling at her two best friends over him, to ensure that justice was sought out for in his stead.
And yet sheer, unrelenting curiosity made her steady her hands, tilt her head high as her resolve hardened, and reach towards the barricading cloth standing in her way.
Twenty-one candles continued to splutter, their last stand before a life of eternal nothingness as the wicks burnt lower. Some had given up the fight, some were burning strong still, but most were about to lose a battle they were never allowed to win. The storm continued howling with its crescendo getting nearer. The climatic height of the concerto was getting closer as the elements joined in completely, holding nothing back. Soon the storm would be over, once the highest note was hit. The wind section exhaled forcefully, uprooting trees from the Forbidden Forest while the rain fell ever harder upon the Black Lake, summoning up a thousand deafening symbols to set the opus fully alight.
And as the storm raged on, the candles spluttering to their demise, a slight shifting of the patient occurred, and he slowly opened up his eyes.
The sight before her wasn't at all what she was preparing herself to witness.
As the curtains were yanked open in her haste, Hermione's brown eyes widened as they fell upon the scene before her, lit up faintly by the last remaining flickers of what was once twenty-one candles sitting along the opposite wall. Her gaze fell upon the bed where a sickly boy of sixteen lay shivering slightly from the cold. The bedcovers he'd been given were pushed down to his waist, revealing a naked torso that glistened with a light sheen of sweat in what the diminishing light would allow. Thick, painful welts lined his underweight body, ones that Hermione noticed trailed down his sides as well, all covered in thick gooey purple paste to try and heal them sooner. His left arm was in a bandage, and a second one was wrapped tightly around his head with a large red smudge on it where blood had seeped through and was starting to dry.
Hermione had surprisingly only seen a few magical injuries since attending Hogwarts, and seeing Draco Malfoy's underweight, ashen and sickly form covered in large welts that gave way to bruises, and all of which covered in purple muck was enough to make her stomach queasy. The dried blood still lining his chest in pools that had yet to be washed away was what set her over the edge.
How could Harry and Ron dismiss this outcome as nothing serious? How could Harry honestly want to get that dangerous potions book back after seeing the devastation it had caused? How could Ron have honestly said that he'd wished Malfoy had died rather than survived? How could Dumbledore be so blasé about the whole incident and not give Harry the punishment he deserved, simply because he had a prophecy to fulfil and he cared for him more than he ought to? How could anyone let injustice surface at a time like this, when all anyone had to rely on was rules and the ability to tell right from wrong, and not be selective about its outcome?
It all made Hermione frustrated and determined to ensure that justice was decided upon fairly, and enforced accordingly, even if it was for someone like Malfoy. Hermione just had to know that the system worked on both sides otherwise she would not be able to survive the wizarding war looming over the horizon that rested so heavily on everyone's minds.
She was about to turn around and leave, having seen far too much after such a long and arduous day ever since finding out about the incident in Myrtles bathroom, but was stopped by one sound. It was so faint and laced with pain that Hermione doubted she'd even heard anything over the tumultuous weather outside, but knew that she could never have imagined a sound like that, not in a million years, and decided that it just had to be real.
With a nervous gulp, she lifted her gaze and conflicted brown eyes met confused and wary grey ones as a crash of lightning echoed loudly throughout the night's sky outside.
"Granger?" Malfoy blinked rapidly, unsure if he was seeing things correctly in his delirious state of mind or not. "What are you doing here?" he drawled sluggishly, tiredly squinting at her through the soft candlelight with as much of a suspicious air someone on deaths door could muster, not knowing anything of the internal struggle Hermione had been dealing with ever since she found out what had happened to him many hours before.
Hermione merely stood there under his searching icy gaze, standing completely still and silent as the masterpiece continued outside without any signs of stopping. The final candle burnt out and cast them both into blinding darkness with one question hanging heavily in the air between them.
Hermione gulped as his words washed over her again through the cold night air.
She didn't know the answer to his question either.